Thursday, September 19, 2019

The Kitchen – female Irish mobsters pack heat and show the men how things should be run (from Friday 20 September)

For the first ten minutes The Kitchen felt like it would be a remake of Widows. But these three women are not taking over a heist from their dead partners. It’s 1978 and when three Irish monsters are arrested, tried and imprisoned, their wives need to make ends meet and set about delivering a better quality of service to the community from which they collect protection money.

If the abusive, bulling, wife-beating opening scenes aren’t sufficient, the soundtrack of “This is a man's world … but it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl” still ringing in your ears is another reminder of the film’s premise. Each woman carries a different demon on their shoulder, and each is looking for a different outcome. But together they seem to form a formidable team.

Yet, unlike Widows, there’s little to like or warm to about these characters. Other than your relief that their husbands are behind bars, they offer few opportunities for empathy as they step into their husbands’ threatening shoes.
“I want you to teach me how to do it”

Elisabeth Moss produces a mesmerising performance as Claire, a battered wife who will no longer cower to any man. She shimmers on-screen as her character gets her hands dirty with “the noisy stuff” – Zoey Bartlet goes full Frank Underwood! – and glows as a seemingly decent man (Domhnall Gleeson) steps into her life to be by her side without wanting to take it over.

Marrying into the mob against some people’s wishes, Ruby knows about being an outsider. Tiffany Haddish plays the character that is most remote and ambiguous, and least well developed. While Ruby ends up as the one to do a deal with the Brooklyn mafia, whose boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) can’t avoid delivering the awful line: “If we have a dick-measuring contest, I’m going to win”. An FBI subplot is set up only to be dismissed with one sultry scene. Ruby’s mother-in-law (Margo Martindale) is scary but dispatchable like everyone else who gets in the new gang’s way.
“You’re way worse than we were”
As Kathy Brennan, Melissa McCarthy shifts from being a protective mother to a manipulative mobster who prefers securing jobs for the local community over cleaning up the streets – and her gang – from the fellow lowlifes she disagrees with. The death toll mounts up at an alarming rate. (Watch out for Kathy’s father making a very unbelievable U-turn.)

Adapted by writer/director Andrea Berloff from the eponymous DC Vertico comic book story, The Kitchen is a tale that only just deserves to be told. Elisabeth Moss is what saves it: her cold and calculating performance is worth the ticket price alone.

The Kitchen is released in UK and Irish cinemas from Friday 20 September.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

A Bump Along the Way – a mother and daughter do a bit of growing up in a female-centred drama that celebrates ochre and Derry’s scenery (from 11 October)

A Bump Along the Way is a brooding film written by Tess McGowan about the trials of a mother and daughter, neither of whom have yet grown up. Fifteen-year-old Allegra is overwhelmed by the teenage struggle to be popular, her feelings for an older fella who won’t give her the time of day, the absence of her Dad who ran off to Belfast, and her somewhat carefree Mum.

Forty something, single parent Pamela has a part time job in a bakery. She finds herself back in the family way after a careless one-night stand with a plumber whose sperm overcomes medical opinion that has written off Pamela’s fertility years before.

Lola Petticrew really captures the moody, artistic teenager – vegan for good measure – whose self-obsessed world is interrupted by her mother’s unexpected news. Classroom cattiness turns into bullying as her Mum’s condition becomes scandalous ammunition to add to her scholastic misery. Petticrew ably swings Allegra’s character between happy-go-lucky and morose, tipped over the edge into banging doors with the slightest push.

Bronagh Gallagher gets to take Pamela on a journey from being a doormat to standing up and being assertive. Yet it’s a very laid-back performance, never hysterical, always thoughtful. Pamela’s wing-woman Sinead is played by Mary Moulds, with plenty of comic timing and hushed knowing looks.

Dan Gordon makes a fabulous baker, the only good guy in a cast full of disappointing men. Ex-husband Kieran is played by Gerard Jordan as a hypocrite Pamela is well shot of, while Barry the plumber (Andy Doherty) is a sign of her past repeating itself.

Filmed entirely in Derry, A Bump Along the Way showcases the city and its environs with verdant grass and menacing clouds. It’s a triumph of cinematography, with a gorgeously executed rich theme of ochre that very deliberately brings sunlight into scenes through a t-shirt, a bag, a nursery wall.

Dramatically, the film wobbles slightly and skips a few beats – and features some overly-curt dialogue – during the climatic struggle between the heavily-pregnant mother and absent daughter before the gritty realism of agony in a hospital ward pulls it back, charges up with emotion and allows an hour and half of tension to be released.

Director Shelly Love and the creative team must have fought hard against the urge to play Chumbawamba’s I Get Knocked Down over the closing credits … though I Get Knocked Up could have been more apt.

For me, the film’s focus is somewhat uncomfortably split between mother and daughter. Both clearly have some growing up to do. The story of the ‘geriatric pregnancy’ is well told; the scenes of labour will bring back some people’s memories of gas and air. The incidents of offline and online bullying and alcohol experimentation are well drawn. But I’d love to see an edit of the film that allowed either Petticrew or Gallagher to get the screen time they deserve, and while I feel torn about making the decision on whom to focus, it may have made the story stronger.

A Bump Along The Way is a good female-centred character study about making the most of what life throws at you, valuing good friendships over popularity, and the perils of parenting. In cinemas from 11 October 2019.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Ad Astra – seeking the things that are above, an emotional vacuum-fuelled distant family reunion

Ad Astra is a story about a son searching to understand his father as much as to find him and stop surges of anti-matter radiating across the universe and threatening life on Earth and other colonised moons and planets. And a story that challenges our cosy view that space is an environment which has grown up from the ‘space race’ and instead encourages international cooperation.

The opening credits explain that Ad Astra is set in “the near future” in a time experiencing both “hope and conflict”. But this isn’t a parable about Brexit.

Technology allows regular commercial flights to the moon; but human nature means that the moon’s riches are contested and if you go outside set areas you’re entering a low-gravity Wild West of bandits and space cowboys. Society is patriarchal – or is that the fault of the director James Gray and his co-writer Ethan Gross? – with rocket pilots and co-pilots exclusively male, and women are all portrayed as weak and second class. Ad Astra is unlikely to pass the Bechdel Test!

Space cinema is often as much about the psychology and the inner mind as the vistas and the risky travel. Ad Astra delivers both. For the first hour or more it’s a well-paced journey from Earth to the moon and beyond, set in even-sized chapters, with various threats along the way to spice it up.

Brad Pitt navigates corridors, drives buggies, pilots rockets and makes do and mends like a seasoned and unpanicked astronaut Major in the Army Corps of Engineers. Externally he’s rugged with a stubble that never grows; internally, he’s empty, an emotional vacuum. Basically, he plays Jason Bourne in space, making everything look almost casual rather than extraordinary.

Tommy Lee Jones adds to the emotional distance with his chillingly cold portrayal of McBride senior. The plug for Virgin Atlantic and their expensive in-flight pillows is tacky.

The storytelling takes a wobble at the point Major Roy McBride nears his furthest destination and the distance takes a toll on his physical and health. An awkward yet revealing reunion is rushed, and one particular extravehicular scene flying across a long distance with an improvised shield defies relative velocity, mechanics and physics, never mind believability.

While its final chapters lack the assuredness of the brilliant start, Ad Astra delivers a very watchable science fiction treat: a treatise on internal solitude, pain, anger, ambivalent loyalties, distance, driven-ness, distance, being lost and staying lost … and baboons!

Ad Astra lands in local cinemas from Wednesday 18 September.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Die Fledermaus – revenge served as chilled as the champagne fuelling this updated duplicitous farce (NI Opera at Grand Opera House until Saturday 21 September)

Falke is seeking revenge for an incident years ago that he cannot forget or forgive. Becoming inebriated at a fancy dress party, he was abandoned by his companion, and became a figure of ridicule. So he sets up Gabriel von Eisenstein on the eve of a short spell in prison, luring him to a party with the promise of fit ballerinas. Cue lots of disguises, swapping identities, costumes and genders, with familiar faces turning up in unexpected venues alongside very familiar Johann Strauss melodies as the story Die Fledermaus unfolds in Northern Ireland Opera’s latest production.

Eisenstein is portrayed by Northern Irish baritone Ben McAteer as a Harvey Weinstein-style libidinous figure with a wandering eye to match his wandering hands and, we presume, wandering penis. Batman to his Robin is Stephan Loges’ Falke, played as a deceptively upright and decent fellow, until his revengeful plan is revealed.

NI Opera Studio alumnus Maria McGrann has great fun with her role as the Eisenstein family’s maid Adele who is the first – but my no means the last – fraud to be uncovered by the plot. While her voice isn’t quite as strong as the principals – a problem also for Conor Breen’s Blind and Mark Pancek’s prison governor Frank (with a mop of Boris Johnson hair) in a number of – her shrugs and asides cut through busy scenes and catch your eye over some of the more experiences on-stage talent. No such problem for Alexandra Lubchansky, in whose solid soprano hands rests Eisenstein’s compromised but savvy wife Rosalinde who is courted by Donegal tenor John Porter playing Alfred. Duplicity runs in the family.

Andrea Kaempf’s set looks like the cargo bay of a space freighter. The perspective-busting space is remarkably simple when compared with some previous NI Opera productions, yet it is flexible and easily decorated with light and video as it morphs from posh marbled house, to the scene of a party and finally, the local prison. Kevin Smith shines precision beams through the windows in the roof, and creates some rich vignettes with the principal cast in vivid colour contrasted against the monochrome set.

A very modern English translation of Karl Haffner’s libretto by Meredithg Oakes and director Walter Sutcliffe gives this production of Die Fledermaus a real contemporary feel, and creates a firm foundation for some of the more whacky creative decisions (like a roller-blading waiters, filling the mezzo-trouser role of Prince Orlofsky with the fabulous and shimmering counter-tenor Denis Lakey in drag, letting Falke acknowledge the drama he was directing during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3, and allowing some characters to keep their local accents despite their Germanic names).

John Linehan gets into quite the stupor playing jailer Frosch and despite the comic dialogue-only role, manages to squeeze in a few bars of a crowd-pleasing Nessun Dorma and enough McFettridgisms to connect this operetta with the adult pantomime it so quickly could become.   

Despite being sung in English throughout, the surtitles at each side of the stage offer a useful safety net for the audience. I’m a big fan and being able to quickly take in the last three lines turns what looks like a complicated plot into an easily understood operetta.

The Ulster Orchestra are to be applauded for their flowing waltzes and polkas, as well as their necessary restraint at never allowing the orchestra pit to overpower the unamplified singers above the musicians’ heads. The acting chorus add colour and constant movement to their scenes (as well as singing their hearts out).

NI Opera continues to improve. While the ambition of previous productions like Turandot was sky high, its recent autumn shows are becoming ever more accessible, and the farcical nature of Die Fledermaus together with the modern-day resonance and over-the-top characters make it a fun night out and a good unrarefied introduction to opera.

If there’s one sticking point, it’s the ending which allows both Eisenstein infidels to forgive each other and live happily ever after. Having taken back control, how could Rosalinde ever trust the “snake in human skin” she married? And the ginger lover seems to have been quickly forgotten. Ditching the last page of the manuscript and leaving everything up in the air, or adding a slap or two in the face or an exchange of ‘Manwhore!’ and ‘Hussy!’ would have better suited the mood set up by the rest of the show.

Die Fledermaus continues at the Grand Opera House with performances on Tuesday 17, Thursday 19 and Saturday 21 September at 7.30pm.

Photo credit: Bradley Quinn

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Spud – restrained comedy respectfully set against the backdrop of the Great Famine (Lyric Theatre until 14 September)

xxx Spud is a dark comedy set against the backdrop of the Great Famine– though never making jokes at its expense – that watches the prodigal thespian son Felix return home from treading the boards in England to stay with his brother Robert in the Story family home. With barely any food and the town closing down around them, can they survive?

While the Lyric main stage has Shirley Valentine pacing around her kitchen talking to the walls, next door in the Naughton Studio, it’s 1847 and Robert is conversing with his prize potato while audience members’ phones ping and buzz across the stalls, and one man further up my row sends a text message and the woman sitting behind begins to colourfully narrate her reactions to the on-stage revelations.

Kevin McAleer utters Robert’s lines with trademark drôle delivery, accentuating a dry sense of humour that is bound up in the desperation – and at times delusion – that accompanies not being able to eat. That he’s the only sibling left alive in Ireland says something of his resilience and stamina, as well as the “period of deep personal reflection” he went through after eating the household mirror.

Into this situation strides Conor Grimes wearing a top hat and leather gloves like someone out of a Dickens novel. He rather precisely enunciates each syllable and mispronounces French and Latin phrases in an accent that has lost all hints of his place of birth, his dandy character having stayed away from home for 12 years.

The promotional leaflet describes Spud as “a deep, dark comedy from the moral grey zone”. But the reality is that Grimes and McAleer steer well clear of the kind of very sharp humour that could have taken them much closer to the line of good taste. If anything, the drama is surprisingly muted. When a sense of immediate jeopardy is introduced to the plot, it is allowed to fade as the inescapable hunger takes its physical and mental toll.

Anachronisms are joyfully woven into the script, and amongst the puntastic dialogue are some nice lines that acknowledge the audience’s participation in the pretence: “at least we don’t eat the scenery”. The worst puns are followed by several waves of laughter as people catch on to what has been said at different speeds. The cast have the confidence to wait and not rush on too quickly.

The simple set is much enhanced by the moody and often striking lighting, and the beautiful soundscape that paints pictures of what director Conleth Hill carefully leaves unseen on the stage.

Spud is a restrained anti-melodrama whose comedy is almost overshadowed by the pathos provoked by watching these two daft brothers run out of ways to survive in the face of physical, financial and housing starvation. The boundaries of respect and gentle education are so well set that, while Ireland might not be ready for a full-on Horrible Histories treatment of the Irish Potato Famine, I’d have been happy for Grimes and McAleer’s script to take more risks and reward the audience with more laughs as they explored the devastating subject.

Spud finishes its run at the Lyric Theatre on 14 September.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Extra Ordinary – an escapist supernatural Irish comedy that is well named (cinemas from Friday 13 September)

Rose Dooley turned her back on the family ‘talent’. But the driving instructor is being drawn by the chance of romance into her old world of witchcraft and supernatural abilities as she races around rural Ireland to cast out demons and rescue a teenager from the clutches of a failed and deranged pop artist, not to mention the controlling ghost of her deceased mother.

Extra Ordinary is a blast. And well-named.

The characters are well-drawn, the plot is madcap and escapist, the humour is surreal, visual, and very quirky. Directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman manage to neatly combine a strong sense of urgency with a slow pace of action, with gross visual props and unfussy special effects.

Maeve Higgins plays Rose, a somewhat bumbling woman whose accidental patricide knocked her enchanted confidence. The characterisation is warm and well-meaning, with great timing and deadpan delivery. Her potential beau is played by Barry Ward, a convincing widower and a desperate father who would do anything – even something very gross seven times in a row – to protect his daughter.

But we aren’t ask to feel sorry for these characters. Instead, the crazy nature of the plot means that the audience are allowed to simply enjoy the creative team’s imagination running wild as glammed-up evil pop star Christian Winter (played by Will Forte as if Meat Loat had swallowed a bat out of hell) wields his vulgar virgin divining rod and his Aussie partner (Claudia O'Doherty) figures out where her next meal is coming from.

With an ending that takes this potential cult classic into a whole other realm or wonder, it’s hard to fault this stream of imagination that’s been structured into a coherent and comedic film.

Extra Ordinary is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Movie House and Omniplex cinemas amongst other NI venues from Friday 13 September.

Shirley Valentine – a pithy, physical and very poignant production of a much-loved classic (Lyric Theatre until 5 October)

The Lyric Theatre’s new production of Shirley Valentine creates quite an impression.

Willy Russell’s script asks us to believe that the titular character can not just break free from her prison of a life tending to the needs of her self-centred and burdensome family, but that she can steel herself to risk embarking on a journey of self-discovery and self-care, to travel to Greece and find a place of safety outside the family home. And we’re asked to believe that she won’t just run out the door and never look back, but that she’ll dismantle the shackles that constrain her, push back the barriers and walk free with her shoulders back, like a trapped bird dismantling the bars of her cage before flying away.

The flimsy nature of Paul Keogan’s kitchen set brings to life director Patrick J O’Reilly’s enduring vision that physical storytelling can permeate all aspects of a performance. Deconstructionism is everywhere. The constant gentle movement between the two acts is not only mesmerising, but moves the story on and gives a real sense of time passing. Nearly every prop is reused after the interval, emphasising that Shirley is still capable of engaging with her old life that she now better understands.

The tragic absence of Julie Maxwell adds another layer to the performance. Earlier this year, she very successfully directed Tara Lynne O’Neill in Me, Mum and Dusty in the Baby Grand with a deftness of touch that felt like the start of a very promising directorial career. Co-writer of the Theatre at the Mill’s Christmas shows in recent years, and a star of Soft Border Patrol, the actor will be remembered for many roles, not least her bold playing of emotionally-stripped and complex Marian in Mydidae back in 2015. As a young girl, she débuted on the Lyric stage in a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dream Coat and memorably played the eldest matriarchal sister in Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation of Three Sisters in 2016. More recently appearing in The Ladykillers and A Streetcar Named Desire, she left her final mark on the Lyric’s stage as assistant director in this production of Shirley Valentine. It seemed like little of Julie’s life was “unused” as Shirley Valentine might have said. But it turned out to be far too short, and the triumph of the final show she worked on is tinged with much sadness and grief, and the opening night tribute was heartfelt and deserved.
“Marriage is like the Middle East: there’s no solution!”
Finally, there’s the impression of O’Neill’s strong performance, wearing a wig that is more Anthea Turner than Pauline Collins, and exploiting her trademark Belfast accent and well-tuned comedy timing. The unexpected impact of the encounters with belittling school friend Marjorie and snooty neighbour Gillian are joyous but never laboured.

O’Neill paces around the triangular kitchen like it’s a cell. Ostensibly talking to the walls of her kitchen – which feels like a dated device on Russell’s part – she offers more than a nod and a wink to the stalls as Shirley recalls at length various conversations and confrontations before turning her head and giving the audience a conspiratorial eyeroll.

Despite 105 minutes of talking across two acts, nothing feels like a monologue. There’s always something to do at the same time, from making egg and chips for tea to mopping the kitchen. Again, the physical supports the verbal with key actions by O’Neill seamlessly echoing definitive moments in her dialogue.

The first act is a bit of a slow cooker as Shirley shifts from depressed housewife to terrified but potentially emancipated woman. The shift is gradual, at times worryingly nearly imperceptible, but it happens and by the interval there was a tear in my eye as Shirley packed her bags and prepared to flee.

When O’Neill next strides on stage, her Shirley is a new woman, with self-respect, self-confidence, a new sense of perspective and a glowing tan that sets off her beachwear and fanny pack.

There were moments in the first half when I found myself wondering just how the words of a male writer could have such a pronounced effect on the audience, with men giggling but so many women laughing heartily at the sharp observations and insight. But then I remembered that Russell worked as a women’s hairdresser and has listened to these confessional stories so often before that he’s perfectly equipped to retell them in his play.
“I think sex is like shopping in Stewarts: overrated.”
At Russell’s suggestion, Shirley Valentine has been relocated from Liverpool to Belfast. Oisín Kearney also adapted the Lyric’s productions of Russell’s Educating Rita, and the localisation – with some local vernacular, and mentions of Botanic, Hillsborough and Donaghadee – feels very natural and not at all forced.

A barely discernible 1980’s soundtrack emanating from the kitchen radio is never allowed to interfere with the dialogue. Keogan’s mood lighting for the walls in the first act baffled me, creating sunset after sunset as if we were on a planet orbiting its sun every 15 minutes, with no obvious tie-in with the script. (And after watching Crocodile Fever on the same stage last week, I was worried about what might come in through the dark kitchen window! On the last night, maybe someone will carry a particular green prop past for badness …)

With O’Reilly’s choreography capturing Shirley’s claustrophobic life in Belfast, and with the portrayal of a real sense of loneliness and vulnerability, O’Neill delivers a memorable performance that makes the wit in Russell’s script sing and connects this 1986 Liverpool script with the 2019 Belfast audience. With stories of gender justice, equal pay and coercive control often in the news, there’s still much of relevance in Shirley’s story.

Shirley Valentine runs at the Lyric Theatre until 5 October.

Photo credit: Johnny Frazer

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Crocodile Fever – a dark family reunion on the border of comedy and cold-blooded horror (Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 September)

Early 1980s in South Armagh and Fianna Devlin appears at the family front door one warm evening after eleven years away. The Crocodile Fever audience quickly discover why the reunion with her older sister Alannah is so awkward, and soon realise that both have been imprisoned: one for arson and murder, the other living on eggshells, caring for their abusive, paralysed father.

The weather’s close outside, but the fever temperature is rocketing inside in this humorous and somewhat surreal horror play. Characters’ personalities are exaggerated, their expression ranging from depressed to hysterical. Packets of cheese and onion Tayto crisps turn out to be crucial to the management of the highly-strung household.

Some of the most exciting yet lowkey theatre events each year in Belfast are the rehearsed readings from new writers in the Lyric Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival. For the last few years, batches of early work have been performed. (One of my favourites was Vittoria Cafolla’s Bloodlines.) Sometimes they represent finished pieces; other times, they’re a selection of scenes from work in progress return to that make you want to hear the full work when it’s finished and further polished. The economics of production and opportunity mean that very few go on to be staged. I missed Meghan Tyler’s Crocodile Fever last year due to a clash with something else in the festival programme, but I can only imagine the audience’s imaginations going into overdrive when some of the plot twists were casually introduced.

Tickets were snapped up for its Edinburgh run this summer, a word-of-mouth and critical success, commissioned by the Traverse Theatre and developed with the support of the Lyric Theatre. Together they have now brought this dark tale to the south Belfast stage.

While living in ‘bandit country’ with British Army troops dropping in to search the house lays down a foundation of agitation, it’s the upstairs/downstairs relationship between widower father and stay-at-home daughter that provides the dynamite, with Fianna’s reappearance lighting the already-short fuse.

Lucianne McEvoy plays highly-strung Alannah with OCD tendencies that mean, if pushed, she could eat her tea off the floor. Yet this repressed and vulnerable figure, bent over with a secret of which only her sister is aware, will momentarily come alive when the right mood music appears and transform into a carefree bohemian wild child, with the most outlandish of thoughts, before snapping back into her sinister real life. But put a chainsaw in her hand, and McEvoy’s Alannah becomes a beast.

Against this, Lisa Dwyer Hogg plays Fianna as a confident, revolver-packing activist who will not be intimidated by man nor beast. While years of incarceration don’t seem to have taken a physical or obviously mental toll, there’s a street toughness to the character who can seem standoffish but longs for something to fill the family-shaped gap in her life. Sean Kearns and Bhav Joshi also appear, the former pushing at the boundaries of his incapacity, the latter bringing fresh tension into the homestead.

The script is brilliantly barmy, quite off the wall, and takes everything to extremes. The ‘sacrament of toast’ is superb, albeit only a mild suggestion of the mania to come. On paper, it’s set in an outrageous fantasy world that couldn’t easily be staged. But in director Gareth Nicholls’ hands, and with Grace Smart’s flexible set design, Crocodile Fever comes to life.

A repeated croak annoyingly never turned into Chekhov’s frog, while I’m not convinced why the manner of the seemingly much-loved mother’s death is accepted without much question by the sisters. Perhaps, just an indication of the torment she experienced at the hands of her cold-blooded husband. And the sensory-overloaded nature of the ending distracted me a little from some of the dialogue that may have provided better closure. But having jumped the shark, so to speak, Crocodile Fever reminds us that the Troubles drove people to distraction and turned them into monsters.

Horror doesn’t often appear in Belfast theatres: the last time might have been when Martin McDonagh’s crushing The Pillowman came to the Lyric back in March 2015. But when the horror arrives, it tends to be rather effective. (Edit: think I rather overlooked David Ireland’s Cyprus Avenue which ended with a lot of blood over the carpet in The MAC in May 2018!)

Gareth Nicholls takes Meghan Tyler’s script and imagination and delivers 90 minutes of theatre that you’ll not forget. Explicit and very unexpected, the on-stage horror will certainly be a conversation starter on the way home and over days to come. Crocodile Fever runs in the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 8 September.

Photo credit: Lara Capelli

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Bait – an unmissable quirky morality tale in which the rich steal what they cannot buy while the displaced locals flail around unable to take back control (QFT from Friday 6 September)

Bait is a beautiful and somewhat quirky tale about the raw interface of new money taking advantage of old in a Cornwall fishing village. Diminishing fishing stocks have combined with the spending power of wealthy folks from the south east of England who buy over property. Tourism and gentrification sits awkwardly with the struggling fishing industry which isn’t universally ready to diversify.

Quirky is normally a word that should set off alarm bells in film reviews. In this case, we’re talking about a 4:3 aspect ratio, 16mm black and white film which has been deliberately aged and scratched to make it look like it’s had a long and happy life being spooled through projectors. The dubbed sound is deliberately tinny, accentuating the sound of boat motors and vehicle engines. Despite the vintage look and sound of the film, and despite the moody, curt dialogue, writer/director Mark Jenkin tells a thoroughly modern story, with some very modern cuts.

The key player is Martin who fishes from the shore rather than join his brother in taking stag parties and tourists out for short sea trips in the family fishing boat. Edward Rowe is gruff, burly and quite menacing, yet with a keen sense of justice (particularly if it’s on his terms). He takes on his nephew Neil (Isaac Woodvine), mostly to wind up his brother. The lad is more interested one of the lasses, Katie (Georgia Ellery) who’s staying in the village for the summer, living in his family’s old home, now tastelessly modernised with nautical trimmings.

This opens up a tectonic plate of disloyalty between the two tribes. The next tension comes when her posh brother Hugo (Jowan Jacobs) cheekily dons a snorkel and tried to find the very fish that the local nets are trying to catch. Add in a poorly parked van, and you end up with a pot-boiler that could cook a lobster until it’s tender.

The sea with its patterned waves and Jenkin’s close-ups almost becomes another character. Barmaid Wenna spouts truth with wonderful turns of phrase: just hope you’re not sipping a glass of chilled prosecco when she utters the line about plums. A real gem amongst a great cast, played by Chloe Endean, Wenna embodies the young heart of the fishing village: feisty, objective, and quite adaptable.

Bait becomes a morality tale – visually similar to something Ingmar Bergman might have directed – that suggests human nature is precarious, and the blow-ins are too rich and slow to realise they’re doing nothing to stop the deadly escalation. The minor and mundane – knotting the net on a lobster pot, or changing the local pub’s pool table rules – become scenes of beauty and acts of conflict.

The fault lines in this village community may well mirror greater fractures in the UK at present. But this film can stand on its own two feet without everything needing to be given a Brexit crutch.

The nearly silent finish befits the novel form that Bait takes. A splendid film that surprises and delights throughout its 89 minutes. Not to be missed when it opens at Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 6 September.

IT Chapter 2 – the Losers’ Club are recalled to Derry to squash Pennywise and face their own demons (cinemas from Friday 6 September)

After reminding the cinema audience of the Secret Seven’s blood promise to return to Derry if the monster ever reappeared, IT Chapter 2 picks up the story 27 years later when the bat call goes out and the clan are recalled to face their demons and boldly go and revisit sets and locations.

Back in September 2017, I was unimpressed with the “overly long, sweary teen adventure which doesn’t contain the twists and turns to deserve any more than 100 minutes of screen time”. IT Chapter 2 is definitely an improvement, and the older age of the cast makes it a lot less like “watching a live action version of ghost-hunting Scooby Doo, complete with haunted house”.

The children have grown up and moved away, all except Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) who stayed in Derry and has been waiting for a spike in suspicious disappearings and murders. Richie (Bill Hader) who made puerile jokes is now a comedian. The tomboy Bev (Jessica Chastain) with an abusive father now has a violent and coercive husband. Bill (Jay Ryan) hasn’t lost his dysfluency. James Ransone and Andy Bean appear as Eddie and Stanley. The only real surprise is that overweight Ben is now a ripped hunk of an architect (Jay Ryan).
“All these memories … of people I don’t even remember forgetting”

A three-phase mission is concocted, allowing us to watch the Losers’ Club regain their memories, face up to their hurtful past, and battle psychological demons before descending even deeper than before into Pennywise’s watery lair “to finish IT for good” by following some ancient instructions carved on the side of a leather lampshade.

The IT franchise continues to be stylish rather than scary. Sure, there are creepy fortune cookie creatures, an enormous red balloon, ghoulish skin-stretched, tongue-twisting monsters, and a creepy clown who pops up. But the jump scares are gently timed to minimise fright, and Bill Skarsgård’s silly dance adds levity.

Blame, guilt, fear, loyalty, teamwork: the themes are universal. The sets are very impressive, though CGI is playing a huge part in making the world below Derry come alive. There’s lots of mirroring between the two chapters which fans will love. Andy Muschietti directs stylish flashbacks that allow the youngsters to add depth to what could have otherwise become a mediocre horror film. The return of psychopathic Bowers adds some genuine terror.

There’s a dangerous running joke about Bill now being an author who writes bad endings. The eventual means used to squash Pennywise in the final battle is appalling, allowing the Losers to descend to the depths of those who had for so long bullied them. Given the 169-minute run time, it was a pretty second-rate cinematic pay off for the hours invested. The two-parter is wrapped up without much fear that the Losers will have to return as pensioners to battle their nemesis. But a prequel is always possible …

IT Chapter 2 goes on general release in cinemas on Friday 6 September. Movie House are running a double bill on Thursday 5 September. Full marks to the people who remembered to wear yellow macs to the preview screening I attended!

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Souvenir – a naive dreamer meets a manipulative bully in director Joanna Hogg’s self-portrait (QFT from Friday 30 August)

The Souvenir is a portrait of an aspiring young filmmaker, Julie, who lives in a duplex apartment in Knightsbridge. It’s the early 1980s and she’s a dreamer, who listens to opera, and has lofty notions of making a film about a boy in Sunderland who fears being separated from his mother. Her own parents are remote: living in the country and, beyond funding her bills, relatively disinterested in her life.

Into her orbit comes a somewhat shadowy man, Anthony, who wears a wide pin stripe suit (in itself a huge giveaway that he’s a baddie) and claims to work at the Foreign Office. His secrecy turns to deception and manipulation, while her naivety and generosity morphs into compassion and dependence even when she finally figures out his game. Will her time at film school grant her liberation from this controlling bully, or will be rein in his talented muse?

Newcomer, Honor Swinton Byrne is terrific throughout, balancing Julie’s calm and reserved nature (her character prefers to stand at the back of a room observing what’s going on) with a quiet determination once she has grasped the facts of her situation (though she then intentionally ignores most of the healthy options she could choose). Amazingly for a film studies student, Julie can deconstruct a Hitchcock movie, but struggles to piece together the obvious clues until they are delivered on a plate in a beautifully blunt cameo performance by Richard Ayoade.

Opposite Julie stands Anthony, played by Tom Burke, a master of never giving proper eye contact and communicating shiftiness without having to scream “I’m a bastard” in every shot. Any criticism directed towards Anthony is pivoted right back at Julie with the skill of a seasoned liar. Every supposed compliment is a barbed insult – “you’re lost … you’ll always be lost” – yet Burke steers clear of becoming an out-and-out pantomime villain and some of the romance is believable.

Julie’s mum (played by Byrne’s actual mother, Tilda Swinton) portrays the standoffish parent who just perhaps has more insight into her daughter’s position that she lets on. That she is only present in a small number of scenes amplifies her early diffidence and shift to ultimate wholehearted involvement.

For screenwriter/director Joanna Hogg, the story of The Souvenir is deliberately autobiographical, with her goddaughter Byrne playing a version of her young self that fell in love with a man supposedly working at the Foreign Office who took her on a date to see ‘The Souvenir’ painting at the Wallace Collection in London.

Hogg’s love of improvisation contributes to the brooding hesitancy of scenes and turns The Souvenir into a study of awkwardness, with anxiety-inducing conversations around dinner tables and huge clouds of sadness that sit above the entire story (assisted by the primary set’s décor that drains the colour out of the location). The drug misuse is much more believable than another recent release, Pain and Glory.

Stylistically, Hogg creates a film that doesn’t provide all the answers. In fact, it regularly cuts away mid-scene and jumps to another incident or encounter without feeling the need to join the dots. Like its central character – who is rarely not on screen – the plot staggers around in a sometimes romantic (but often depressed) daze, coping with each day rather than planning too far in advance.

The Souvenir is sinister and at times distressing watch. Its two-hour run time emphasises the deep hole into which a young woman is being coerced into digging. The unusual style and the compelling non-carbon copy characters make it very watchable. The news that The Souvenir: Part II has completed filming over the summer fills me with joy as it promises to pick up the story a few days after the end of Julie’s harrowing experience and follows the artist for the next decade or so. It could hardly any more harrowing that this first episode, but Joanna Hogg may yet have other disturbing tales up her sleeve.

The Souvenir opens in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Friday 30 August.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Skyroam Solis – a hotspot that takes the hassle out of international mobile data access (130 countries)

As a freelancer, a lot of my work is done at odd hours in odd places. The one constant is that most of it requires online access to contact clients, upload edited video, publish written content and push out social media updates at events.

Coffeeshop wifi is, for the most part, shockingly unreliable – particularly if the venue is using a domestic router – and is sometimes insecure without a VPN. Wireless access in hotels and airports is very patchy. And while many conference centres have invested heavily in flooding their spaces with robust wifi, spending a day in some spaces can feel like travelling back in time to the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Mobile phone networks are often more stable, and can be a lot faster for download, than broadband. They’re usually much faster for upload in my experience as someone who needs to share edited video files that can be more than a couple of gigabytes in size. But it can also be a lot more expensive, though an unlimited data SIM can be sourced for £20/month in the UK.

In years gone by, I carried an unlocked Huawei mifi hotspot (branded as Three) with me wherever I went. One of the first things I’d do in a new country was to buy a Pay As You Go SIM card and slot it in. (Easier said than done in the US where I first needed to buy a prepaid credit card in order to satisfy – or bypass – the identity rules to buy the SIM card as cash and foreign credit cards weren’t allowed.)

The elimination of mobile roaming charges across EU countries has been a godsend for travellers, both business and pleasure. But stray outside the magic list of ‘free’ countries and you’ll be paying a fixed daily fee for data and calls if you’re lucky, or an arm and a leg every few emails if you’re not.

On a recent work trip to Cape Town to attend Global Fact 6, the International Fact Checking Network annual meetup, with a colleague from FactCheckNI, I brought along a Skyroam Solis (loaded to me by their PR team) to see how it would work.

Not much larger or heavier than an ice hockey puck, the distinctive round orange hotspot will hook into mobile networks across 130 countries and allow up to five of your devices to connect over secure wifi. There are sizeable batteries inside – 6,200mAh (about four times the capacity of my Huawei mifi) – which can both power the Solis for hours on end, but also top up your phone’s battery with the provided cable.

The orange puck is small and robust enough to survive being thrown into my backpack and carted around airports, hotels and a conference for a week. A bus from Belfast (UK) to Dublin (Ireland), flight to Istanbul (Turkey) and another to Cape Town (South Africa) were all good tests for the Solis. There’s no physical SIM inside, only a virtual one, leaving Skyroam free to do deals with mobile operators around the world.

Holding the small power button in turns on the hotspot and the lights begins to flash as it figures out where in the world it is and how to get online. So no despite the fact every time I switched it on it was in a new country with a new set of mobile networks to choose from, the Solis figured it out every time without any intervention on my part.

A companion app (available for iOS and Android devices) uses a QR code on the base of the unit to pair up a phone to its wifi (finally a practical use for QR codes!) and lets you see details about the connection and your data usage. You can also connect to the Solis by typing in the wifi password printed on the base by hand.

In the last month, Skyroam have announced a new model, the Solis X which is marginally smaller, has a slightly smaller battery, but allows 10 devices to connect and includes a built-in camera, bluetooth microphone/speaker and can act as a smart assistant.

What does it cost?

One of the immutable rules of the universe is that data is never free! (The corollary is that any free data should assumed to be insecure, limited in bandwidth, and very frustrating to use.) So it should be no surprise that Skyroam offer a number of different ways to prepay for data on the Solis unit which can be bought outright or just rented for the duration of your travel.

Daypass – £7/day ($9) provides 24 hours of unlimited wifi in 130 or so countries. Outside of the friendly roam-free countries, this price point compares well with my current provider who charge £6/day to use my UK tariff’s existing data in an additional 58 countries outside ‘Europe’.

GoData – £7/month ($9) for 1GB of data that can be used over a month, with additional data available by top-up for £7/GB. While the subscription is set to roll over every month, there’s no contract period and as long as you cancel 4 days before the end of your current period. So you can subscribe for a single trip, then cancel and pick it up again a few months later and re-subscribe. I notice that there’s currently a deal to pay up front for 12 months of GoData and get a third off the price of the hotspot (£165 total for Solis+wifi).

Unlimited monthly subscription – £79/month (£99) for unlimited global data over 30 days. Again it rolls over, but there’s no contract and you can cancel up to 4 days before the end of any month. I reckon you’d need to be quite the road warrior doing a lot of international travel and a consuming a lot of data (video) for the Unlimited subscription to cost in. But having spent a month or so working in Macedonia this time last year – outside the EU roaming scheme – the Solis would have been quite competitive and less hassle than hours on the phone to Vodafone trying to rectify a problem with my ‘old’ tariff that wasn’t behaving internationally as their customer service had advised before I travelled.

Using it in anger

The Solis worked well on the bus down to Dublin airport and was a boon when the Cape Town hotel wanted to charge for wifi access. (Turns out that hotels charging for internet access is still a thing in 2019 … madness.)

Sitting at two o’clock in the morning in Istabul’s brand spanking new airport waiting for my flight home to Dublin, I was able to pull the Solis out of my backpack and get online within less than a minute. Dropbox synced up the changes I’d made on the previous flight and I spent a couple of hours editing Google Docs and dissecting people’s Twitter and Facebook usage for social media healthchecks I was running the next week.

Solis’ strength is that it’s hassle free, and given the colour, you’ll unlikely to leave it behind.

Saving an image badged as 1.2Mb on a website, I was surprised that the filesize turned out to be only a few kilobytes, and the picture seemed grainy when I opened it on my laptop. A similar problem can happen on any mobile network, with carriers offering some APNs that push traffic through invisible proxies that compress image sizes to reduce bandwidth (and data usage, often a good thing) as well as APNs that don’t tamper with the content being browsed. A quick conversation with Skyroam online chat resolved the issue and following their instruction to turn the Solis off and on again, it picked up a less restrictive configuration and the internet went back to normal. (Impressive support at 2am on a Sunday morning!)

The Solis is charged by USB-C, so there’s no chance of damaging the unit by trying to plug the charging cable in the wrong way around. It’s slightly annoying that the Solis refuses to be charged by my rather powerful 61W Apple MacBook charger (which would reduce the need to bring a separate charger plug), though it will happily charge off the laptop directly.

The larger the access point, the (potentially) larger the antennae that will be built in. Battery-powered hotspots from Huawei and Netgear (whose Nighthawk M1 is very effective if you have a physical SIM) tend to have small ports that allow a larger external antenna to be attached. I’ve one that comes with suckers that allows it to be stuck to an external window and typically boosts mobile signal strength by 25-40%. However, for air travellers, the lack of the option of an external antenna on the Solis won’t be a big minus.


As someone who regularly records and livestream conferences, lectures and events using wifi-connected cameras (iPhones on remote gimbals) and Switcher Studio’s software, I’m always on the lookout for flexible connectivity solutions, particularly if working overseas and wanting to slim down the amount of kit that needs to travel.

Recording would just use its ability to connect up to five devices together (with the traffic between the devices staying within the room and none of it going out over mobile network). The Solis wouldn’t quite have the sensitivity of the larger Google Wi-Fi access point I trail around in my case which has multiple internal antennae. But in small venues with good line of sight between devices, the Solis could be a good option.

Streaming would not only rely on the five devices connecting together via wireless, but would take advantage of Solis’ 4G connectivity. It would be cost restrictive at home. And for streamers, Skyroam’s Fair Use Policy warns about bandwidth being reduced if a user consumes a disproportionately high amount of data, which makes this hotspot less attractive as a streaming solution, given the likelihood that an hour or more of an HD stream to Facebook Live or YouTube could trigger a service-restricting action.

But for short bursts while travelling, it could still be very effective.


Frequent travellers will enjoy the wide coverage and no-nonsense price plans that Skyroam offer. I found the loaned Solis unit to be robust and the technical support was speedy and, importantly, available when I needed it. The Skyroam Solis is a big time saver that avoids the hassle of buying a local SIM card if your mobile tariff back at home is going to prove too expensive. And the ability to go away for a few weeks outside Europe with a few GB of data loaded through GoData and know that it’ll work across a family is a very attractive option for regular travellers needing data on the move.

Thanks to Skyroam PR team for the loan of the hotspot.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Informer – battling to survive when the chips are down and old friends leave you in the clink (UK and Ireland cinemas from Friday 30 August)

Whether an informer or a tout depends on your perspective on the individual, but people in Northern Ireland are familiar with the concept and sympathetic to the notion that the person who is supplying the information and the person to whom it is being supplied are in a very unequal power relationship with the latter having significant coercive leverage over the former.

The Informer follows the tribulations facing an informer in a New York drug gang. When the operation to expose the top man goes south, Pete Koslow (Joel Kinnaman) and his steely family (Ana de Armas and Karma Meyer) are at the mercy of his gang, his FBI handlers, a vengeful NYPD organised crime officer and his former place of incarceration.

This is a tale of not knowing who to trust, pitting a master tactician (with the resourcefulness of Die Hard’s John McClane) against a sympathetic Federal agent (Rosamund Pike), her nervous boss (Clive Owen) and a gung-ho policeman (played by Common) who eschews the protection a flak jacket would provide. He also carelessly loses his police partner (Ruth Bradley) who completely disappears from screen for the mother of all long breakfasts on the edit room floor immediately after making an inconsequential personal revelation!

Wiretapping, brutally violent scenes inside prison (filmed in Gloucester), the accidental state murder of yet another crooked law enforcement officer, and a fabulous jail break sequence, The Informer isn’t for the feint-hearted. For the most part it follows a well-constructed plot and is edited to maximise the sense of Pete’s isolation and the audience’s distrust of each of the major criminal justice agents.

While never looking scared – a particular problem in some of the early set-up scenes – Kinnaman combines brains and brawn to create a character who the audience can firmly get behind. De Armas òozes maternal protection and Owen creates a very slippery character, a lot of the other characters felt totally subservient to the storyline with Pike in particular playing her FBI role with a low key coolness throughout and Common flipflopping between pushy and threatening. There won’t be many Oscars nominations on the back of the acting in this film.

Adapted from the Swedish thriller Three Seconds by screenwriters Rowan Joffe, Matt Cook and director Andrea Di Stefano (who have swapped the focus from the police detective to the inside man), the unfinished feel to the ending suggests that we may see Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström’s literary sequel Three Minutes translated to the silver screen in a couple of years’ time.

The Informer hits cinema screens in the UK and Ireland – including Movie House Cinemas – from Friday 30 August, four months ahead of its US release.

The Big Meeting – telling some of the stories of the annual Durham Miners’ Gala (from 6 September)

Every year on the second Saturday in July, thousands of activists converge in the north east of England for the Durham Miners’ Gala. At the peak of coal industry there were over 100 pits in Country Durham; today none are still in operation.

A new documentary from Shut Out the Light Films about the gala is being screened in some English and Scottish cinemas from Friday 6 September, marking the 150th anniversary of the gala. The Big Meeting provides an immersive insight into the 2018 event (which was blessed with glorious sunshine), following various participants across the day and sewing their individual dramas into a colourful patchwork quilt.

Coming from Northern Ireland, I can’t help but compare the gala with a Twelfth of July Orange parade. People marching behind an ornate banner accompanied by a band and congregating in a field for speeches and a grockle around some stalls seems terribly familiar!

The sequence on miners’ art was one of the most distinctive and satisfying in the film, while the scenes inside Durham Cathedral were spine-tingling as Highland Cathedral echoed around the stone walls.

The event clearly means different things to different people. Some are commemorating family connections with coal-mining; some are upholding the work of trade unions; some are protesting for socialist causes; some see it as a way of celebrating working class Britain; some very definitely see it as a way of marking their support for the Labour Party, and, in particular, Jeremy Corbyn’s style of politics (he pops up in person at the 38 minute mark).

Talking heads voice their perspectives over a mix of archive and contemporary footage. Split screen is used to effectively convey the size and breadth of the occasion. While I’d expect the pace to vary across the 90-minute documentary, there are a lot of wistful shots that probably evoke strong emotion in participants but merely slow down the telling of the gala’s story to newbies.

The final line of the film’s narration observes: “You realise it’s a little more than you expect”. But as an outside watching the film and finding out about the gala for the first time, I overwhelmed by the melange of ideas being spread and the varying rationale for involvement. People are coming together, but not really for one collective purpose that they’d agree on.

The documentary doesn’t address this scope creep amongst participants. Instead it notes the Labour grandees with drinks and cigars up on the balcony of the Country Hotel without commenting that these elite leaders may be perceived to be 15 feet above contradiction and certainly not ‘down with the people’ as they watch from this elevated position above the working class beginnings of the gala.

As a film that documents that colour, vibrancy and history of the Durham Miner’s Gala, The Big Meeting delivers a balance of people, stories and perspectives. However, director Daniel Draper very much paints an insider’s view of the gala, an enthusiastic and unchallenging celebration of the event. His target audience seems to be the easy pickings of existing socialist activists rather than selling the event to a wider and perhaps more sceptical audience who wonder how this annual rage against capitalism by the energy centres of the 19th century apply in the 21st.